Google has a new vision for Android and automobiles. The idea, Reuters reports, is to bypass the need for a smartphone entirely and build Android right into cars. (Android Driveables, anyone?) Android M could be ready for cars as soon as fall 2015, allowing drivers to access their apps and services when behind the wheel in a new way.
Android Auto, which Google announced in June, will hit showrooms early next year. Android Auto allows smartphone owners to connect their smartphones to their cars in order to access their music, messaging and navigation apps. Dozens of carmakers — including Hyundai, General Motors and Nissan — have agreed to put Android Auto in their cars. Some will be on display at the Consumer Electronics Show, slated to begin Jan. 6 in Las Vegas. Google's plan for Android M goes far beyond what Android Auto offers.
Instead of relying on smartphones to power the apps and content, Android M will run natively inside the car, according to sources familiar with Google's plans. "With embedded, it's always on, always there," a source told Reuters. "You don't have to depend on your phone being there and on." Since more and more cars carry their own Internet service these days, cars with Android M would always have access to live traffic, weather reports, movie times, music and messaging services — phone or not.
The idea has plenty of appeal. Adding native Google search alone could have a significant impact on how we manage personal transportation. Imaging interacting with Google Now, Google's voice-based search tool, when driving. "OK, Google." Yes? "How far to the nearest gas station?" A station is coming up on your right in one-quarter mile.
Google did not comment on Reuters' story. Android Auto is a real thing and will reach consumers in just a few months. Android M and its potential reach inside the dashboard is altogether different.
Fully embedding Android into a car's in-vehicle system brings a range of questions to mind. Will it boot quickly enough? Smartphones often take 60 to 90 seconds to boot fully. Drivers aren't usually that patient when they get into their cars (though they should be; the engine really needs time to warm up). With Android inside, will Google monitor drivers' habits? Will it track location data and serve ads for Big Macs as you drive past McDonald's? Potentially.
"You can get access to GPS location, where you stop, where you travel every day, your speed, your fuel level, where you stop for gas," said Reuters' source. Privacy advocates won't be happy about that.
Moreover, carmakers themselves may not be interested. They may not want to give Google access to in-car systems, and there are safety and liability concerns. "Automakers want to keep their brand appeal and keep their differentiation," said Mark Boyadjis, a senior analyst with industry research firm IHS Automotive. "Automakers don't want to have a state of the industry where you get in any vehicle and it's just the same experience wherever you go."
And what of Apple? Apple introduced CarPlay earlier this year. It behaves similarly to Android Auto in that it brings select apps and services to the dashboard through a dedicated link. Are we really looking at a future where we have to choose a car based on the operating system? Hopefully not.
Last, what role will developers play? Will developers be able to create their own apps directly for cars? If so, that could be a huge opportunity.
With no word from Google, speculation about Android M and its in-car capabilities will remain just that for the time being.